Although it ended in an orgy of violent repression, Zimbabwe's 2008 election had started on a positive note, writes Owen Gagare.
As the country prepared for parallel presidential, parliamentary, senatorial and municipal ballots, the climate was generally peaceful, despite food and fuel shortages and galloping inflation.
The trouble started when the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, won 99 house of assembly seats ahead of Zanu-PF's 97 and 10 won by Arthur Mutambara's MDC-M faction.
These results came out in two days of polling – but more than a month passed before the outcome of the presidential election was announced.
There were concerns that Zanu-PF – with help from the military and Zimbabwe Electoral Commission officials – was deliberately delaying the announcement to rig the poll and ensure that Tsvangirai missed an overall majority.
When the results came out on May 2, they showed that Tsvangirai had outpolled Mugabe by 48% to 43%. Crucially, however, he failed to secure 50% plus one, resulting in the electoral commission declaring a runoff.
Zimbabwe's Electoral Act stipulates that a runoff must take place 21 days after the first round. However, it was held on June 27 amid speculation that the additional time was used by Mugabe and the joint operation command – the top brass of the military, police, intelligence and prisons – to plan and launch a spoiling strategy.
A countrywide explosion of violence followed, orchestrated by war veterans, Zanu-PF militia and security force members, who almost appropriated the Zanu-PF campaign. Despite fuel shortages, troops were deployed countrywide.
Buoyed by the army's support, senior Zanu-PF officials declared that the party would not accept defeat in an election because Zimbabwe had been liberated through war, not the ballot box.
Amid acute food shortages, food aid became another election tool – Zanu-PF controlled distribution and known MDC activists and supporters were denied supplies.
On June 23, Tsvangirai informed the electoral commission that he was withdrawing from the election. He cited violence and the intimidation of MDC supporters, threats of war, the participation of uniformed soldiers in Zanu-PF campaigns, the MDC's lack of access to the state media, the banning and disruption of MDC meetings and rallies, the disenfranchisement of many voters, the barring of his party from rural areas and the electoral commission's failure to ensure free and fair polls.
Tsvangirai said 86 people had been killed and 10 000 injured in the violence. About 10 000 homes had been destroyed, displacing 200 000 people.
"Throughout its campaign, Zanu-PF has threatened that there will be war if an MDC win in the presidential runoff is pronounced," he wrote. "Mugabe made it quite clear recently that power cannot be taken by a pen but by a gun. War veterans aligned to him have articulated this position throughout the country."
Tsvangirai pointed out "alarming" intimidation, particularly in rural areas.
The electoral commission refused to accept Tsvangirai's withdrawal, arguing that his action had no legal effect. The elections went ahead on June 27 and Mugabe was declared the winner just two days later after winning 90% of the vote.
A wide range of observer missions, including those of the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, condemned the election.
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